No airplane in the world could outshine Howard Hughes' H-1 Racer--until Jim Wright built a copy of it.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2003
(Page 3 of 6)
Back in Cottage Grove, Wright Tool employees Guy Ralstin and Dennis Parker generated more than 1,000 CAD drawings while Wright and his hangar crew fabricated most of the fuselage, bending the aluminum skins, riveting them in place, countersinking the rivets, then sanding and polishing the surface until it was smooth and unbroken. But the more elaborate pieces demanded special handling. The fiendishly complex curves of the engine cowl, for example, were shaped by Jim Younkin of Springdale, Arkansas, a restorer and replica builder who spent an entire year on the project. “The sheet metal cost more than a new Corvette,” Wright says. (The entire airplane, he says, ran more than $1 million.)
There’s also a tail section so artfully crafted by Kent White of Nevada City, California, that it deserves its own museum exhibit. “I usually get things right the first time,” says White, who cut his teeth restoring exotic cars. “If not the first time, then the second. This tail section, I threw away three pieces—three!—before I got it right.”
The wings too are works of art, and ran up 3,000 hours on Wolf’s clock—half as long as it took to build the entire Gee Bee replica. Hughes chose wood because it could produce a smoother surface than metal. Wolf used light-colored sitka spruce for the spars and ribs, and he covered them with dark mahogany plywood. A fiberglass fabric the thickness of a nylon stocking was stretched across the wing skin, and epoxy was squeegee’d into it. When the glue dried, it was block-sanded until, as Wolf puts it, “you could put a six-foot straight-edge across the wing and not have a piece of paper go through it.” The finishing touch was 13 coats of polyurethane paint, which give the wings a dark blue liquid luster.
Although the replica is a visual twin of the original, there are differences between them. Look closely at Wright’s airplane and you’ll see modern wheels, tires, and brakes, for safety’s sake, as well as a tail wheel instead of a tail skid to prevent gouging runways. Some pieces, like the horizontal stabilizer, are the product of informed speculation. “The only clue we had as to how it was made was the number of screws,” Englund says. Wright also replaced some forgings—most prominently in the landing gear—with stronger pieces CNC’ed out of aluminum billet and sandblasted for a period look. Safety also inspired him to use rubber-bladder fuel cells instead of welded-aluminum fuel tanks, halon rather than carbon dioxide (or carbon tetrachloride, nobody’s sure which) in the fire suppression system, and, to reduce the possibility of flutter, pushrods, rather than cables, to actuate the ailerons.
Just how close the re-creation came to the original became disconcertingly apparent when the Racer first flew in July. As Wright sat in the cockpit, idling on the short runway outside his hangar, he took a deep breath. Although the airplane had performed flawlessly during extensive taxi tests, Wright says “there was always the nagging fear that the reason Howard flew [the H-1] only 42 hours was because there was some serious problem, which he never would have said anything about. Was there a bear trap waiting for us?”
Wright lifted off in a level attitude at about 115 mph. The airplane exhibited benign flying qualities as it climbed. But when Wright leveled off at 5,000 feet, the propeller remained stuck in the low-pitch setting, limiting him to a paltry 120 mph at the engine’s 2,625-rpm redline. As the engine temperatures rose, Wright quickly reviewed his options for an emergency landing. Fortunately, the temperatures stabilized, and he was able to set the airplane down in Corvallis, as planned.
Notwithstanding the champagne celebration that followed, it was clear that something was amiss. Wright knew from his research that the propeller had misbehaved during Hughes’ first flight too. After poring over before-and-after photos of the original airplane, Wright and his team realized that Hughes had retrofitted a bigger counterweight to the propeller. Since the counterweight enables the prop to shift into high pitch, the team surmised that Hughes must have run into the same problem that Wright did 67 years later. A larger counterweight was mounted on the replica, allowing the airplane to take full advantage of 700 horsepower.
Wright made 19 more takeoffs and landings during his flight test program. Aside from an abrupt stall characteristic and poor visibility on approach, the airplane was so stable that Wright says it could be flown with no trouble by a low-time pilot. By the time Wright made the 65-minute hop from Cottage Grove to Stead Field in Reno—cruising at 295 mph, 50 percent power, and 10,000 feet—the replica had accumulated more flight time than the Racer logged in its entire career.